The legendary songwriter revisits his 1970 classic 50 years after its release.

By Jordan Runtagh
September 17, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
Jim McCrary/Redferns

Change is a recurring theme in the music of Cat Stevens. Perhaps that’s because he’s gone through so many incarnations himself. Born Steven Georgiou in London’s West End, he fashioned himself into a teenage Swinging ‘60s pop idol before maturing into the folk-tinged spiritual seeker who beguiled fans in the ‘70s with musical dispatches from his metaphysical journey. In 1977 he underwent his most famous reinvention by adopting the Islamic faith and rejecting the entertainment industry. Taking the name Yusuf Islam, he sold his guitars and dedicated the next three decades to theological study and charity work. Then in 2006 he released the first in a series of four albums, marking a tentative reconciliation with both Western music and also his own legacy as a reluctant superstar. Now he’s revisiting Tea for the Tillerman, the seminal 1970 album that made him a global artistic force. Having teamed up with original producer Paul Samwell-Smith and co-guitarist Alun Davies, Tea for the Tillerman² (out Sept. 18) finds Yusuf bringing half a century of experience to the words he wrote in his early 20s.

Released at a time when the generation gap seemed insurmountably wide, Tea for the Tillerman took a compassionate look at the conflict between young and old with songs like “Father and Son” and “But I Might Die Tonight.” Fittingly, the decision to remake the album was born out of a conversation with his own adult son, Yoriyos. “We sat down and started talking about ideas to mark this milestone — 50 years of probably one of my most well-known, well-loved albums,” Yusuf, 72, tells Entertainment Weekly. “He came up with the idea of doing it all again, and I said, ‘Yeah, I like a challenge!’ It was intimidating because the album is so successful and iconic.”

Rather than record a faithful replica of his masterwork, he radically recast many of the familiar tracks, exploring the sonic possibilities only hinted at in the acoustic originals. The original calypso groove of “Longer Boats” morphs into a full-on funk breakdown, capped off with a spoken word verse from rapper Brother Ali. “Miles from Nowhere” includes a buzz-saw slide guitar that’s positively rowdy — a word seldom used to describe Yusuf/Cat Stevens tracks, while “But I Might Die Tonight” is given a similarly hard driving treatment. “Wild World,” arguably the album’s best-known song, received the most extensive makeover, rearranged as a noirish waltz straight out of Weimar-era Berlin. “I wanted to do things that would help me to recapture a different aspect of that album,” he explains. “For me, that makes it what it means today.” The sounds may have changed, but so has he. This fact is poignantly illustrated on “Father and Son,” which features Yusuf duetting with his younger self — drawn from a recently unearthed tape of the then-22-year-old performing at the legendary Troubadour club in Los Angeles.

The original album resonated with fans left disoriented by the tumult of the ‘60s. Like the singer, they too felt unfulfilled by modern existence and believed technology had provided more questions than answers. Man’s search for meaning is not an uncommon topic in art, but few articulated it so eloquently — and tunefully — than Yusuf. During this similarly troubled time, the revamped version of Tillerman will introduce the music to a whole new generation of listeners. “The major message is that one must follow one's heart. In the end, that's you. That's your life. If anybody else is dictating or darkening that area of your existence, you should move to somewhere brighter."

Speaking from his villa in Dubai, where he’s in the midst of completing his autobiography, Yusuf went track-by-track through the 11 songs that compose Tea for the Tillerman.

Cat Stevens, later Yusuf Islam, standing outside Basing Street Studios in London in October, 1970, one more before the release of Tillerman.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

“Where Do the Children Play?”

This song has become even more vivid as a statement of what our world is going through and what we've done to it. In the last verse we sing about the development of science and the way in which it's influencing our humanity: "Will you tell us when to live? Will you tell us when to die?" That's really not far off considering how it's all going, and the way in which people now are being so profiled — subversively, I would say. Who knows what kind of games are going on in the scientific lab that are going to affect our lives in the future? Lots of things there which have ominous meanings or implications.

“Hard Headed Woman”

I've amended the lyrics to “Hard Headed Woman” [for Tea for the Tillerman²]. Now, instead of saying, "I'm looking for my hard-headed woman," I say, "I’ve found my hard-headed woman." That’s my reality now with my wife. It brings it into focus who I am today.

“Wild World”

“Wild World” is probably the biggest departure [on the new record]. If you look at it alongside the original, it's gone in a completely different direction. I've made it slightly film-esque. I imagine it being part of Casablanca, where Humphrey Bogart is in that bar with the gun and playing piano. It's kind of got a ‘40s tilt to it.

“Sad Lisa”

Looking at the oncome of lonesome individuals experiencing virtual life through more and more social technology, this song seems to have growing relevance. It was about a real sweet girl called Lisa from Sweden who came to work in our home in 1969. Though I captured the spirit of her loneliness in this beautiful song, I can only hope she made it out of the door.

Like the music, the cover of Tea for the Tillerman² is an updated take on the original.

“Miles from Nowhere”

A very important song. It defines where I was at that particular time. I can't say I'm at that place anymore, but that doesn't mean there are no mountains to climb. Once you've started this search for higher meaning, that never stops. You can't I don't think there's an end to knowledge. But that’s [still] me in the song. That's my bones. That's my inner construct. Whoever I am today is because there was this construction of my identity, which obviously took time to happen. It's the same as looking at the foundation of a building. You've got to have a foundation. That's what it is. It's what made me who I am.

“But I Might Die Tonight”

“But I Might Die Tonight” has a message that’s consistently relevant to so many people. We talk about corporate companies, and they're getting bigger and more monstrous as time goes on. Now they're bigger and more powerful than governments! Either you belong to a company or you don't belong. If you don't belong to a company, you're in the danger zone. You're likely to be wiped off. That song is talking about people who feel that life is in somebody else's hands. You've got to take ownership, because you might die tonight. That's a very powerful message.

When I wrote that song, I was being asked by the director of this film called Deep End with Jane Asher. He wanted to use “Father and Son.” I said, "No, no, you can't use ‘Father and Son,’ because it's for a musical opera.” So I tried to get out of it by saying I'll write another song that was similar.

“Longer Boats”

I gave “Longer Boats” a new twist [on Tea for the Tillerman²]. You hear the original folky intro, and then we have this rap introduction to this next moment, where we break into this James Brown explosion. I've always loved R&B, so I just experimented with that song. One of the reasons I did that was I was using it in a musical I was working on called Moonshadow. That's how the song developed into something quite different. I must admit Tea for the Tillerman² definitely takes an interesting direction towards electric guitars, which I never used on the original acoustic pristine version. [Laughs]

In the tape from the Troubadour, I noticed that I sang a verse that was never on Tea for the Tillerman. So now I've revived that verse, which is talking about looking out at space. It's what people are doing now — trying to find life on Mars or wherever, to see if in any way they might've impacted our origins or existence on this planet. It's a little bit tongue in cheek, but it's an interesting song.

“Into White”

This is one of my favorite songs on the album, and it always has been. It’s a very folky tune. It paints a picture — which I always tried to do with my songs — but it does it very vividly. I was always a fan of Van Gogh, and that’s my Van Gogh tribute in a way.

"The major message is that one must follow one's heart," says Yusuf/Cat Stevens, of Tea for the Tillerman
Rhys Fagan

“On the Road to Find Out”

As you pass through different thresholds of life, you look at some of the memories, and (for me) the songs that represent those memories. For sure, you see another dimension. One very obvious example would be “On the Road to Find Out,” which almost foretold, in very prescriptive terms, what was going to happen to me and my [faith]. “Yes, the answer lies within, so why not take a look now/Kick out the devil’s sin. Pickup a good book now.” Before I received any book, I was writing about this book that was going to change my life. And wow.

“Father and Son”

A very, very important, profound song. You can analyze “Father and Son” until the cows come home, but one of the most important things I think it talks about is change. I've talked about change in lots of songs. I wrote a song once called “Changes IV.” (I called it “Changes IV,” because there were lots of other songs called “Changes,” so I gave it a number!) But in that song I say, "When your children see the answers that you saw the same." That's kind of the opposite to what “Father and Son” is saying. “Father and Son” is saying your offspring don't see things the way you do — that’s from the father’s point of view. From the son's point of view, your father can't see it the way you see it. It’s a kind of conflict, but it talks about change. The father doesn't want change. And the son’s whole life has been about change up until that point. Youth is always taking different turns so quickly, and suddenly you're in a new scenario you've never seen or experienced before. That's what youth is. It’s great. The song is an ever-living testament to the differences that we represent to each other, especially in terms of age with fathers and sons, and also with traditions. Traditions have a big impact on our lives, and sometimes you've got to walk away from that tradition. You'll find something better.

“Tea for the Tillerman"

You can see that the [Tea for the Tillerman²] album cover depicts a new scene 50 years on, where the world is much darker and the kids are not really playing. They're just listening to streaming music and playing with their mobile phones. Yet the Tillerman is still a constant, reliable figure in the middle, sitting and drinking his tea — in a space suit, because he's prepared for whatever. Pollution is affecting this world, and he's still optimistic. Behind him is a massive, white, gleaming moon. Even in the darkness, God has given us something to lighten our way. It’s a symbol of that. In the last words of that song he’s stretching and reaching out for a happy day. I love that song. And I love the Tillerman.

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